Catching a flight directly from the United Kingdom to Kashgar, China, was the initial plan. Having changed our plans, enabling us to spend the first week journeying eastwards through Kyrgyzstan, I can wholeheartedly say that the short time spent in the enigmatic country was exceptional. Kyrgyzstan offered everything that a cycle touring introduction should provide. The cycling was extremely tough and our legs had been shocked into the new routine but the spectacular scenery and diverse landscapes were as if from a fantasy; harsh, arid, almost desert like conditions, rolling green hills and plateaus and cycling in the shadows of imposing mountain ranges.
We left Kyrgyzstan feeling blessed by the humanitarian generosity of the Kyrgyz people. They did everything possible to ensure that we felt safe and welcome in their homeland, providing sanctuary when we were vulnerable, satisfying our every need and sharing with us what little they have to give. Unfortunately, this was ever somewhat offset by the acts of the few who left us with a slight sour taste. Though one can expect that due to the nature of a western bohemian cycling through such foreign, untouched lands, that one will attract a sense of foreboding curiosity.
Despite the preliminary anxiety of the Chinese border crossing, the following day was relatively uneventful. We cycled through no mans land passing various security checkpoints where I was jovially complimented on my outlandish, strawberry-blonde hair by a Chinese official. At the Chinese Immigration Inspection our electronic devices were temporarily seized and our bags X-rayed. To our amusement, the only concern that appeared to evoke curiosity seemed to be a suspect Morrisons bag of dried oats. The official called her colleague for a second, professional opinion. Still suspicious, the oats were placed through the X-ray a second time. Satisfied that it was only a bag of a breakfast staple, we were permitted to proceed.
We waited almost four hours for a vehicle to transport us 149 kilometres to yet another immigration checkpoint. As we departed the landscape changed immediately, it felt as driving across the surface of Mars. Endless rugged mountains, deep browns, reds and oranges, interlaced with streaks of grey. Dissected by a tiny sliver of green that followed the river, benefiting from the scarce sustenance that the flowing water provided.
Shortly after arriving in Ulugqat and another heptathlon of security checks, our passports were finally stamped. Our original plan of cycling the next 96 kilometres to Kashgar were disrupted by our shared state of ill health. My headache and flu symptoms had fully developed into a cold and blocked sinuses, I suspected this was my bodys way of telling me “What on earth is going on!? Where are the oranges and avocados!? And why the hell are we cycling for eight bleeding hours a day!?” Jacob was experiencing difficulties at the other end, literally, which lead to an interesting encounter with a bucket back in Irkenshtam. The taxi driver reluctantly offered to continue on to Kashgar, but could not resist the increased ‘Western tax’ he knew he could get away with, he drove a hard bargain. The next two hours were spent gazing out of the window while the driver continually veered across both lanes as he nibbled his way through a bag of sunflower seeds.
We were dropped outside the Kashgar Pamir Youth Hostel where we would spend the next four nights. We hauled our wares up to the third floor in a Worlds Strongest Man style event and checked into our dormitory. Obvious that we were cycle tourers, we were greeted enthusiastically by Stella, a Swedish cyclist who was on her ‘Long way home’ from New Zealand. She had barely met any other fellow cycle tourers throughout her five months on the road. We conversed over fresh melon and a deliciously vibrant dish of noodles at the night food market. The contrast of Kashgar in comparison to the preceding week was vast, suddenly immersed into the center of a bustling city, but we were excited to have finally arrived at a destination that, for so long, has been just a name on a map.
Over the next few days we benefited from some much needed rest, time to unwind and recharge in readiness for the main course, the Karakoram Highway, one of the world’s highest paved roads and an apparent contender for the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. The 1,300 kilometre artery that cuts through the Himalayas will take us over the Khunjerab Pass at 4,880 metres and into the Punjab province of Pakistan.
Exploring Kashgar, or ‘Kashi’, was a welcome break in our journey. Having a fixed abode, treating ourselves to steamed buns, baked pastries and noodles and taking time to reflect on the previous week over a pot of Kashi Nutritious Tea at the One Hundred Year Old Tea House. Though the city didn’t feel anything like my preconception of ‘China’. Situated in the north-westerly region of Xinjiang, Kashi had a somewhat unique ‘Arabic’ feel to it. The buildings were decorated with mosaic-like facades, intricately carved wooden doorways and window shutters that lined the streets. Market stalls selling brass teapots, traditional clothing and handmade musical instruments. Fresh meat kebabs cooking in the streets over hot coals and the warming scent of spices and fresh chai filled the air. We later learned that scenes of the movie ‘Kite Runnner’ were filmed in the streets and livestock markets of Kashi.
These delights were unfortunately tainted somewhat by a very strong, persistent presence of the police and armed forces. The Xinjiang region is home to a broad number of ethnic groups with increasing religious sensitivity that has come to the forefront of society in recent years.
On Sunday afternoon I was approached my an overly cheerful Chinaman. Introducing himself as “Mario, like Super Mario!” a student spending his gap year cycling through China, Tibet, Nepal, India and Southeast Asia. I assumed he had a keen eye for a fellow cyclist, though he later explained that Swedish cycle tourer, Stella, from the other hostel had informed him of our plans to ride to from Kashgar to Tashkurgan. Keen to join us, we spent the following evening chatting and singing “Hey Jude” and “Take me Home, Country Roads” while lapping up bowls of noodles and giant slices of watermelon. Learning about his family life and upbringing, it turned out that he was a devote Christian, his inspirations in life are Jesus Christ and Rocky Balboa.
With a revived sense of vitality and vigor, we planned our attack to escape the busy streets of Kashgar and unite ourselves with our ultimate goal, the Karakoram Highway. With the uncertainty of the Chinese cycling laws and the alleged wild camping ban, our guts were lined with apprehension. We weren’t sure that we could make it to Tashkurgan without our progress through Xinjiang being stunted by Chinese officials. For this, we were extremely grateful to have Mario on board and for the next leg of our journey, become a trio, not only for the help he offered with translations whenever the need would arise, but also for the companionship and a new friend.